|A depiction of Zwarte Piet and Sinterklaas from 1906.|
|Also Known As||Ansipan, Assepan, Assiepan, Hans Moef, Nicodemus, Pieter-mê-knecht, Rabbadoelie, Sabbas, Sjaak Sjoor, Trappadoeli|
|Natural Habitat||Spain, The Netherlands|
While Sinterklaas is a Dutch celebration, it's lore isn't restricted to the Netherlands alone. These Dutch traditions are based on the legend of saint Nicholas of Myra (270 - 343 AD), which spawned many derivations across Europe. Along with those derivations came a set of different helpers; sometimes the saint was accompanied by angels, but demonic figures were more common. Sometimes he had both, other times he worked alone. Before the late 1700's, Sinterklaas was known to work alone in the Netherlands, but it wasn't always that way. It is entirely possible the holy man had demonic helpers alongside of him long before that.Although a resemblance with the German Ruprecht sounds quite likely too.
Black Petes are usually white people dressed up in a jacket and knickerbockers that match, with a maillot underneath. Their lips are red and the rest of their face black. They wear big earrings, gloves, a barret with feathers and a frizzly wig (generally reminiscent of blackface).
It is rumored this black servant known as "Zwarte Piet" came into play at the end of the 18th century. Sources from 1884 speak of a memory from 1828, where saint Nicolas appeared with a black man. Many other appearances were introduced in the 19th century (often involving white faces), but none of them became very popular. The nationally embraced (for lack of a better word) identity of Zwarte Piet however, first showed up in a picture book from 1850, written by school teacher Jan Schenkman. Before that time, saint Nicolaas was a lone Child Terror whose popularity was slowly fading. Presumably it was Jan Schenkman's goal to turn the stern Sinterklaas into a more child-friendly figure, by having his servant do the punishing.
Black Pete's JobEdit
In the beginning, there was only one fearsome helper by the name of Black Pete. Clearly not as high in regard, he had no horse - unlike Sinterklaas - and was overal portrayed as an unintelligent black man whose job it was to scare children into obedience. Children who had been good would be awarded with sweets and presents. Those who had been naughty would be given salt, if they were lucky. Sinterklaas and his helper didn't shy away from giving naughty children a spanking, right in front of their parents. Black Pete always brough a bundle of willow twigs especially for this occasion. The Jute bag they brough with them had multiple purposes as well. Besides using it as a means to transport presents, they have also been used to kidnap children back to Spain. Supposedly these children were then trained to become Black Petes themselves. A lot has changed since then. Sinterklaas has a lot more helpers now. Black Pete has lost his speech impediment, and is a lot more friendly towards children. While Black Pete still has a racist appearance, he's become a lot smarter and even manages the festivities without the help of Sinterklaas.
Besides being a Child Terror, Black Pete has been known to investigate children on their behavior and report this back to Sinterklaas, who'd make note of this in a book he carries along with him. Black Pete also entered houses by crawling through their chimneys (many assume this is the reason why they are black), where he left presents inside the shoes of children. This tradition was derived from one of the legends told about saint Nicholas of Myra, who left gold coins in the shoes of those too poor to provide a reasonable Dowry.
Black Pete's racist demeanor (similar to blackface) has been a topic of discussion for over 50 years now. Modern Dutch civilians firmly hold on to their traditions, and claim they don't mean to offend anyone.
Whether Jan Schenkman's Zwarte Piet was servant or slave has been a hot topic of discussion for years now. Some say Black Pete was based on Walter Scott's "Ivanhoe" (1819/1820). The servants described in Walter Scott's historical novel were black people enslaved by the middle-eastern Saracen. This was clearly described in a footnote that got lost in translation, meaning it was very easy to assume these servants were of Saracen decent themselves, seeing as the Dutch version never mentioned any African heritage. But slaves or not, these dark-skinned characters were very trust-worthy servents, and looked very similar to the black men in Jan Schenkman's imagery. Whether there is a connection remains uncertain however. Especially since other sources have showed us that it was a very common garnment for black people to wear during that time.
Songs however do seem to point out some obvious racist qualities. One song mentions "Ookal ben ik zwart als roet, ik meen het toch goed." This translates to "Even though I'm black as soot, my intentions are good." Another song strongly suggests that Black Pete was enslaved: "Piet zijn knecht zo zwart als roet, met een ketting aan zijn voet," which means "Pete his servant black as soot, with a cuff around his foot." Early christian traditions depicted saint Nicholas with an overcome, enslaved devil. This was long before the 18th century, when Black Pete first entered the scene. As a result, this is explenation seems very unlikely, especially since Black Pete doesn't look anything to resemble a demonic figure.
The first known Sinterklaas oppositions started back in the 1960's. Remarkably enough, it was a group of caucasian citizens who pleaded for "White Petes" or a similar color-friendly approach to continue the tradition. While nothing changed about the colors, the festivities became more child-friendly. Sinterklaas promised to stop punishing any more children, and symbolically got rid of his bag and his bundle made of willow twigs. Towards the 1980's, black residents of the Netherlands became more outspoken about their unpleasant Sinterklaas experiences. From the 1990's onward, this issue turned into a social experiment where little things were changed about the celebration. This happened on a very small scale. Some would try different colors of facepaint, others would opt for no facepaint at all and again other would celebrate without having any helpers. It is remarkable that in contast to the Netherlands, former Dutch colony Suriname never had any problems with the Sinterklaas tradition. Albeit with a black Sinterklaas, they never questioned the dubious nature and still continue to celebrate it to this day. Even songs (which include racial provocations) are not being questioned about their meaning.
A breakthrough finally occurred in 2013, when heavy discussions led to the introduction of colored Petes on a national scale. Whether this will ever catch on is still uncertain, as too many people oppose the idea. As a result, many of the oldest song lyrics have been edited as well.
- ↑ http://kunst-en-cultuur.infonu.nl/feestdagen/62267-sinterklaas-in-andere-landen.html
- ↑ http://www.kennislink.nl/publicaties/de-duistere-looks-van-zwarte-piet
- ↑ http://www.abedeverteller.nl/de-horrorsint-sinterklaas-als-boeman/
- ↑ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Knecht_Ruprecht
- ↑ http://www.meertens.knaw.nl/cms/nl/nieuws-agenda/nieuwsbrief/uitgelicht/144655-zwarte-piet-als-kikker-een-heel-andere-piet-uit-1886
- ↑ https://groninganus.wordpress.com/2013/11/03/blanke-boeman-was-voorganger-van-zwarte-piet/
- ↑ http://www.dichtbij.nl/groningen/regionaal-nieuws/artikel/3165130/zwarte-piet-was-ooit-een-blanke-boeman.aspx
- ↑ http://www.meertens.knaw.nl/cms/nl/nieuws-agenda/nieuws-overzicht/202-nieuws-2013/144371-faq-zwarte-piet
- ↑ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Nicholas
- ↑ http://www.meertens.knaw.nl/cms/nl/nieuwsbriefteksten/nieuwsbriefuitgelicht/143982-zwarte-piet-geen-afrikaanse-slaaf-maar-een-saraceen
- ↑ http://www.dbnl.org/tekst/hovi002cult01_01/hovi002cult01_01_0011.php